R. maximum has historical significance in North Carolina.
Photo by Shelby Jackson

Opening a native plant nursery 17 years ago in western North Carolina may not have been my best idea. I didn’t know what I was doing but was open to new opportunities. One of them came quickly when a potential new client called about cutback rhododendrons. Having no clue what he was talking about, I called my local cooperative extension agent and started asking questions. So of course, he gave me a quick lesson in what cutback rhododendrons were and introduced me to some local guys that could help, and help they did. They still are.

Native plants have been harvested in the mountains of western North Carolina for centuries. Ginseng and Galax are well known. Rhododendron maximum (rosebay) and Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel) have been harvested and shipped up the East Coast for decades by the hundreds of thousands. Although a little dated, it was reported that in 1979, western North Carolina sold $4 million worth of these native ornamentals ($14 million in today’s dollars).

These plants have provided an important source of jobs and an economic boost to parts of western North Carolina when others disappeared. Mitchell (home of Mt. Mitchell) and Avery (Grandfather Mountain) counties became the center of cutback production when logging and mining left the men of the area jobless.

Logging and mining were essential parts of the economy of these counties. An immense logging industry that existed in these counties from the late 1880s ended by 1940. Logging had employed roughly 30,000 people in North Carolina in the 1920s. Thousands of acres had been clear cut. A massive flood in 1940 due to the environmental degradation caused by this clear cutting was the final blow. It was also during this time that the conservation efforts that lead to the preservation of Grandfather Mountain as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway were underway. The resulting tourism would become a large part of the economy of western North Carolina, too.

Prospectors first started mining mica in the Spruce Pine Mining District (Avery and Mitchell counties) in the 1850s. A mica boom in 1878 helped supply materials for an insulator in Thomas Edison’s electric motor, windows for furnaces and woodstoves, insulation in toasters, and was used in vacuum tubes. When World War II broke out, the over 700 mines in Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties began working overtime to supply the nation with all it needed. The mica mines went full bore until solid-state electronics were developed in the 1960s, causing many mines to close.

Many of these unemployed men in the counties went to the woods and started growing, digging and selling cutbacks.

Rhododendron and kalmia cutbacks are available either as field-grown or harvested in place. Field-grown cutbacks involve removing the top of the plant and digging rootstock out of an area of younger wild plants. Rootstock is no more than 1 foot in diameter, usually smaller, healed in for a short period of time and then lined out in a field like any other field-grown nursery plant. This represents a small portion of cutback production. They are easy to dig, can be fertilized and sprayed, and are fairly uniform in appearance.

The vast majority of cutback plants are produced “in place” on the nurseryman’s land. A patch of rhododendrons or kalmias will be cut all off to the stump (burl). The first year’s growth produces the first few sets of leaves from dormant buds then the following years show 6-12 inches of growth. It usually takes three to four years before these plants reach the 2-3 feet range. This practice is a sustainable practice, too. These plants, especially the rhododendrons, come back from the roots that remain after harvest.

The tools of the digging trade are a weighted spade (20 pounds or more), ax, chainsaw, files, burlap and pinning nails. These plants can take from a couple of minutes up to 20 minutes to dig, burlap, and then have to be hauled out and loaded. If you have ever been to western North Carolina and seen how steep it can be, imagine carrying these plants out.

Rhododendron maximum and mountain laurel have been a mainstay of the nursery trade for decades. They both naturally occur throughout the eastern U.S. Generations of landscape designers and architects from western North Carolina northward have counted on these evergreen natives for their beauty, durability and supply for decades. Perspective on the economic importance and history of these native plants may make their use a little more meaningful.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GIE Media, Inc.

Bill Jones is president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, N.C., a specialty grower of native shrubs, perennials ferns, and grasses. www.carolinanativenursery.com